Polarization and its relationship to mental health were the focus of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Dialogues discussion that took place on Wednesday, June 21, and marked the beginning of the 2023 SNF Nostos Conference on mental health.
With active participation by the audience through live polling and live questions for the first time, the Dialogues held an interactive discussion where experts from the fields of political science and psychology exchanged views on social and political issues and the challenges posed by the impact of polarizing public discourse on the mental health of citizens and, ultimately, on democracy.
Pointing out that “mental health is not just a medical matter, but also a great social and therefore political matter,” iMEdD Managing Director and SNF Dialogues Executive Director Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou welcomed the audience and the participants to the discussion held as part of a dynamic collaboration with the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
She kicked off the discussion by noting that “The way political discourse takes place today often makes us feel anger, insecurity, even fear. It also makes us feel disengaged, without any access and, at the same time, we are spectators of what is almost a derby, feel-like game between groups of people fighting for the win”.
Lilliana Mason, Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University’s SNF Agora Institute, added that “There are a lot of misperceptions[…]that the way that we participate in politics is rational, it’s thoughtful[…]we look at the parties’ set of policies[…]and then we make a very calm, reasoned decision about who to vote for. But, in fact human psychology does not participate in the world that way[…]Once we have a sense that we are on one team and someone else is on a different team, it is our priority not to be reasonable and thoughtful but instead to win”.
She also referred to the cultivation of the “us versus them” mentality, which plays a key role in the establishment of polarization, noting that “leaders have a big role to play…Their motivations are often based on how to get more votes and how to get more money and…[they] create more conflict to get those things. Having leaders be more responsible participants in democracy[…]could tone things down”.
Peter Ditto, Professor of Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine, discussed how morality relates to civic behavior, emphasizing that “a lot of post-traumatic stress symptoms have a moral course[…]When you feel that it’s morally offensive what the other side is doing[…]it creates anger, anxiety, very often fear, particularly when they are in power, and you could see the connections between the political and the personal in this sort of situation”.
He also said, “As a psychologist, I study how people think about morality[…]Morality is a double-edged sword. The paradox of morality is that it connects us with other people; it’s the greatest expression of our social nature, the way we feel concern about others’ well-being and the greater good, but at the very same time it separates us from others[…] So, people who have different moral views[…]feel like a very different person and it breeds moral distaste and distrust[…]Morality takes teams and turns them into tribes”.
The Director of SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Hahrie Han, asked, “Is polarization the problem or is it the symptom of something bigger? Some of you might be surprised to know that in 1950 the American Political Science Association[…]issued a report saying that American politics was doomed because it was not polarized enough. In other words, they were concerned that we didn’t have enough polarization in America at that time because they understood disagreement and debate as fundamental to a healthy democracy”.
Watch the SNF Dialogues discussion on Mental Health: Reconnecting in a fractured political landscape here
The Dialogues are curated and moderated by Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou and are held through journalism nonprofit iMEdD.